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After fire and floods, restoring a sacred New Mexico canyon and a way of life

November 26, 2014 at 6:25 PM EDT
For more than 1,200 years, Native Americans have called Santa Clara Pueblo home. But in 2011, a devastating fire blasted through the canyon they consider sacred, setting the stage for destructive floods. Now repairs have gone on for years, and there’s constant worry of more damage when it rains. Special correspondent Kathleen McCleery reports.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Next: a story of fire and water, and how the two are posing life-threatening challenges for a Native American pueblo.

Special correspondent Kathleen McCleery reports from New Mexico.

KATHLEEN MCCLEERY: For more than 1,200 years, the people of Santa Clara Pueblo, a Native American village, have cherished their canyon.

MATTHEW TAFOYA, Acting Forestry Director, Santa Clara Pueblo: This is our sanctuary, our spiritual sanctuary.

ROXANNE SWENTZELL, Sculptor: The canyon is home. It’s part of our home.

KATHLEEN MCCLEERY: Today, it accounts for three-quarters of their 50,000-acre reservation northwest of Santa Fe.

Unlike many Native Americans, who were assigned to reservations, the people of Santa Clara have always lived here. But their canyon, considered sacred, is now off-limits because it’s being repaired after multiple devastating fires and floods.

MAN: New video tonight of the flames from the Las Conchas Fire.

KATHLEEN MCCLEERY: In June 2011, the Las Conchas fire blasted through the canyon. It was a blaze Matthew Tafoya, now acting director of the pueblo’s Forestry Department, remembers well.

MATTHEW TAFOYA: The first day of the fire, it was burning about at one acre per second.

KATHLEEN MCCLEERY: Eventually, flames destroyed more than 150,000 acres in the state, including 17,000 on Santa Clara lands. Eighty percent of the pueblo’s watershed was ruined. That set the stage for trouble just a few weeks later.

MATTHEW TAFOYA: The soil baked, and became hydrophobic. So when the first rains hit that, there was nowhere for the rains to soak into the ground. It was basically just running off the sides of the hills and the mountains.

KATHLEEN MCCLEERY: The summer monsoon rains brought fast-moving and dangerous floods. The water carved deep chasms in the creek bed. It destroyed the road, and the ponds and spillways that were supposed to protect the areas downstream. Some of the most dramatic video was taken by the pueblo’s governor, J. Michael Chavarria.

GOV. J. MICHAEL CHAVARRIA, Santa Clara Pueblo: There was large boulders, large whole trees, part of what they call floatable debris, and once that floatable debris comes closer to Santa Clara, it started impacting homes along the stream channel.

KATHLEEN MCCLEERY: With all the devastation, repairs have gone on for years. It’s still too dangerous for tribe members to go into the canyon. We were among the few, besides work crews, allowed to go there.

Amid the debris are the remains of cabins once rented to campers and fishermen. And that source of revenue is gone. And there’s the constant worry of even more damage every time it rains. Maps done by U.S. Army Corps of Engineers show a major flood could wipe out the whole village.

Matthew Tafoya’s home is one of about 340 that could be harmed. He’s had to evacuate his wife and children several times. Naomi Tafoya tries to be prepared and not panic.

NAOMI TAFOYA: What if we do lose stuff? What if our house is damaged? What if we lose our home? Not knowing, like, what are we going to do with the kids, how are we going to — what are we going to do? We can’t live in constant fear, but you do have that in the back of your mind, ah, what if this the one?

KATHLEEN MCCLEERY: Santa Clara is fighting back. With help from an alphabet soup of federal agencies, contractors are building earthen berms and placing wire baskets full of dirt and rocks.

In the canyon, there’s a new road. Workers have piled trees and rocks and stabilized the banks of the creek. Solar-powered gauges will issue warnings if waters rise. Wire fences originally designed for avalanches in the Alps are being installed to hold back debris.

MATTHEW TAFOYA: It’s almost like a metal fence going across the tributary, and that’s to catch the sediment and the debris coming out of those tributaries, and allow the clear water to pass.

ROXANNE SWENTZELL: I would like to help repair it.

KATHLEEN MCCLEERY: Individuals have stepped up, too. Sculptor Roxanne Swentzell is best known for her rounded figures of Native American women. She’s started a nonprofit organization to collect seeds from native grasses, trees, and shrubs to plant someday in the canyon.

ROXANNE SWENTZELL: If I can get a variety of species that are indigenous to this landscape to be put back into the canyon, that would be my hope.

KATHLEEN MCCLEERY: It all takes money. Five federal disaster declarations have brought government dollars, along with an estimate of $150 million in infrastructure damage.

The pueblo must match a percentage of that. So far, they have spent about $5 million, but believe they need to come up with $40 million or more. They aren’t a wealthy tribe. They run a small casino, hotel and golf course. They rely on tourists visiting the prehistoric Puye Cliffs, where tribal ancestors lived.

But, says the governor, they are actively looking for grants from foundations and others. And, meanwhile, to fund repairs in the canyon, he faces tough decisions to cut back elsewhere.

GOV. J. MICHAEL CHAVARRIA: We’re taking away from our social services programs of a community, from grandma, grandpa, from our Head Start program, day school. And so we are taking a lot away from those, and putting it into this larger part of emergency monies now.

KATHLEEN MCCLEERY: These natural disasters aren’t unique to Santa Clara, of course. The fire season in the West is three months longer than it was just 40 years ago. And the number of fires on federal lands is not only increasing, but more destructive than ever.

GRANT MEYER, University of New Mexico: The effect of climate warming has been felt most everywhere

KATHLEEN MCCLEERY: Geologist Grant Meyer at the University of New Mexico cites several factors for the uptick in fires, including forestry practices that aggressively stamp out fires, instead of allowing them to burn naturally.

GRANT MEYER: What we have is the combination of warmer temperatures that dry out the forests more quickly, that makes drought more severe, combined with very dense forests and create these conditions where entire watersheds can generate floods.

KATHLEEN MCCLEERY: It will take generations to repair the wounds caused by the most recent fires and floods.

GOV. J. MICHAEL CHAVARRIA: We had a lot of trees in the range of 200 to 300 years old, so it’s going to take 200 to 300 hundred years from now to really come back to how it was pre-fire.

KATHLEEN MCCLEERY: If the young people of Santa Clara can’t experience the canyon, elders, like Sheriff Regis Chavarria, fear they will never truly understand and appreciate their heritage.

SHERIFF REGIS CHAVARRIA, Santa Clara Pueblo: I have a 6-year-old daughter who has never been to the canyon yet. And I also have almost a 1-year-old grandson and a 1-year-old granddaughter who have never seen the canyon. They never will see what we were shown by our grandparents.

GOV. J. MICHAEL CHAVARRIA: We are an endangered community, like an endangered species, only 2,500 of us in the whole world. So if some of us are lost, it will have a great impact on continuing our life — livelihood into the future.

KATHLEEN MCCLEERY: I’m Kathleen McCleery for the “PBS NewsHour” in Santa Clara, New Mexico.